I’m sure you’ve heard about Google’s venture into the use of drones. Amazon is also working on a delivery system as are many other smaller companies. While this may reduce the workforce of UPS, FED EX, and other drivers, these are not scalable solutions nor can they carry the heavier payloads. I do see this as a potentially viable way of delivering mail and small packages given the continued underfunding of the USPS (postal service). However, I don’t see this achieving significant scale until drones are able to do pickup & delivery, which would avoid the costly consolidation and centralization process. Lets assume (for a moment) that it’s even possible to scale this up and (also assume energy costs are minimal, which they are not presently…though solar powered vehicles are in the works), the FAA has zero capability of tracking objects of this size nor is there sufficient frequency to control (communicate with these drones), let alone establish and guarantee these drones fly within a restricted air space.
Now, we’re only talking about US airspace. Can you imagine how this would work in other countries ? (hmm… can you say Malaysia, North Korea, China, …not even going to touch the middle east). Yes, once the power consumption issue is resolved I can foresee a need for an entire new defense system to protect our borders and our interests abroad. The technology exists today to outfit drones with extreme vision (flying at 5000 feet or higher, they can see objects the size of a quarter), which means you can’t see them…but they can see you. And yes, some of these are already in being deployed though the defense department and FAA will not comment.
Let’s move forward another 10 years and see how drones (and the related technologies) will impact our lives in the future. In order for drones to operate properly, they need to be fairly self reliant. This means that they don’t have the bandwidth nor is there sufficient remote processing power to capture and assimilate the terabytes of data that is captured through the various sensors (visual is probably the most complex). You’ll begin to hear words like autonomous, adaptive, and even “intelligent” being used with drones. Self reliant technology needs to be “aware” of their surroundings, adjust to external stimuli, and repair themselves if they encounter problems. So, these drones will develop the ability to make decisions by themselves based on their own sensory data. This is all fine as long as they are delivering packages for consumers and businesses. But, what happens when drones are outfitted with the capability of delivering micro / macro payloads of weapons (chemical, physical - includes arsenal)? This is where we begin outsourcing safety, control, and enforcement. Some of these capabilities are already in development and will be tested in the field. If we look at drones that can self-destruct while delivering a controlled payload, it’s equivalent to building an automated terrorist.
The above points are nothing new and as a society we’re become increasingly accustomed to escalations in violence. The introduction of these drones and why it matters is because of the potential to accelerate the use of violence, the deterioration of privacy, and the under utilization of human capital (a drone is but one type of robot). Robots (or bots referred to at the micro scale), are becoming mainstream and will be infused (literally via biologic bots) in every aspect of our lives within 20 years. I can imagine the impact that these advances will have on people trying to come to grips with change on a simple level (many folks are still adjusting to smart phones and the use of mobile technology). Very disruptive and potentially very destructive to our social fabric and our ability to understand and manage this type of change. Our 19th century mindset around the use of institutions and their capacity to absorb and harness this for the next workforce (education, training, monetization, and control) will be disrupted. How that disruption will evolve into a new type of institution and/or collective has yet to be played out.
What is alarming is that if we as a human race cannot adjust to the pace and scale of change brought by these autonomous robots (where drones are accelerating the advancement in artificial intelligence), then we may see a collective intelligence form within one or more sets of machines (robots interacting with stationary machine intelligence) as the only “logical” response. I’ll leave the rest to the scientific fiction (or perhaps non-fiction) writers to explore further.